While it's always nice to have one's preconceived notions shattered, Muay Thai Fighter confounds by making its focus so literal that it ends up being all about the fighter and hardly about the Muay Thai.
Perhaps the fault is my own. Having taken in the work of Tony Jaa and Jeeja Vismistananda over the last few years, I had certain expectations of a movie titled 'Muay Thai Fighter'. I fully anticipated a guy delivering bone-breaking beatdowns with a certain flair and ferocity. Heck, even the cover art makes the film look like what I just described. And yet, that is not the film this actually turned out to be. To be fair there is a Muay Thai fighter (actually lots of them) and there are plenty of fights in the film. However, as presented, the action is almost beside the point. At its core, this is a melodramatic coming of age story that weaves through the seamy underbelly of Thailand and the professional Muay Thai boxing scene before making a statement about the nature of friendship.
The film follows three boys who aspire to be professional Muay Thai boxers when they grow up. Things don't turn out that way as one of them, Samor (Sonthaya Chitmanee), hurts his leg while another, Pao (Thawatchai Phanpakdee), timidly steps aside so that his friend, Piak (Akara Amarttayakul), can have his shot at the spot light. Piak being the scrapper of the bunch seizes his opportunity and follows it all the way to the big city. He signs up with a ruthless coach who has his fighters throw matches after they have outlived their usefulness. This turns out to be Piak's first step down a slippery slope which leads him into the grimy underworld of gambling and no-holds-barred boxing. As Piak, accompanied by Samor, makes his descent into hell, Pao continues to fight the good fight. He gets training from his father and becomes the mainstream success story that Piak could never be. The rest of the film focuses on their increasingly divergent paths and the elusive quest for redemption.
After I got over the fact that the film wasn't going to be exactly what I expected ("What do you mean there are no elephant thieves in this one?"), I was struck by just how universal its tale really was. If you ignored a few of its distinctly Thai details, the film follows the blueprint established by so many crime dramas before it. The unfortunate part is that a blueprint even exists. If you've seen at least a few crime sagas in your life, you'll be able to predict ever beat this film hits before it even gets there. There is a small twist regarding Piak's motives that is dropped into the climax in order to make us reconsider what we've seen so far. Rather than being a stroke of originality, it feels like a silly concession aimed at pushing even more sappy sentimentality into our faces.
Equally surprising is the wasted opportunity at setting the film apart with some hard-hitting action. By centering the film in the professional boxing ring for much of its duration, the impact of the fights is somewhat diluted. We get a few snippets of Piak's underground bare-knuckle boxing but they aren't filmed with enough flair to be truly impressive. A climactic rampage featuring a character and his trusty sword proves to be the only action highlight for me. It is a rare moment where the bloodletting and storytelling come together to deliver the right emotional blow. Perhaps with a more original story or some compelling action sequences, the film could have lived up to its promise of being a different sort of Muay Thai flick. As it stands, it's a soggy retread of crime clichés with a few more elbows being thrown at faces.